Smurfs Team Up With US Forest Service

smurfs_ooh

When I saw this ad at a bus stop I thought I had fallen into some kinds of post-modern hall of mirrors. At first I could not believe that it was real. Is the Forest Service really pushing our magnificent National Forests with an ad depicting a simulated forest populated by the Belgian version of Hobbits*? How could I begin to write about this?

A look at the website reveals that the Forest Service has entered into a co-branding arrangement with Sony Pictures (who took a break from helping remove our green bike lane). According to the Hollywood Reporter Sony’s work on this campaign was done “pro bono.” Of course, they do have a Smurf movie coming out this summer. The DiscoverTheForest website explains it all:

As inhabitants of the forest, Smurfs are the perfect ambassadors for forest recreation. As these new PSAs remind us, the forest provides benefits such as clean air and fresh water, and provides children with the ability to explore, use their imaginations, discover new wildlife and engage in unstructured and adventurous play. The Smurfs’ enthusiasm for their environment hopes to inspire families to create their own forest adventure and reap the many rewards that nature has to offer.

Are we slipping into a terminal nature estrangement syndrome here? A complete break with reality? Are we so detached from the actual forest that the folks at the Forest Service would think this is a good idea?

On a completely off topic side note–can someone tell me why the Smurfs wear phrygian caps? Are they revolutionaries?

*Mrs. Homegrown would like to register her disagreement re: the hobbit/smurf comparison. Mr. Homegrown has an underdeveloped understanding of magical creature taxonomy.

The tale of the worm bin celery

parsley flower

This is related to my recent post about our flowering radish. It’s a tale of botanic dumpster diving and another reason why you should let your food plants go to flower when you can.

Last year I threw the crown (which is to say, the bottom) of a celery plant in my worm bin. I probably should have chopped it up for the worms’ sake, but I didn’t. Later, sometime in the fall,  I rediscovered the celery crown. Instead of rotting in the bin, it had sprouted leaves and looked surprisingly vigorous. So I pulled it out and popped it into an empty space in one of our raised beds.

I didn’t have much hope. Celery doesn’t like our climate much, and I consider it one of those plants which is easier to buy than to grow.

To my surprise, the plant did quite well, though it did have a feral quality to it, despite its mild domestic origins. It didn’t grow fat, moist stalks which can be used to scoop up peanut butter. It grew stringy, dark green stalks which tasted powerfully of celery. It made excellent stock, and chopped into fine pieces, it was good in soup, too. Since I don’t eat much raw celery, this suited me fine.

All winter long I used this plant as the basis of my cold-weather cooking–chopped onions, carrots and celery in the bottom of every pot. It was a real treat not to have to buy celery for such a long time, and to have that flavor available whenever I wanted it. I should add that the leaves were just as flavorful as the stalks

As a side note, I’ve heard of a breed of celery made to work precisely this way, called cutting celery, but I’ve never grown it intentionally. The celery in this post looks very much like my homegrown “cutting celery.” Perhaps commercial celery wants to revert to this?

Months later, the hot weather arrived, the celery started to bolt (that is, send up flower stalks). When a plant bolts, it puts all its energy into flowering. At that point, its not much use to us as food. I was sad to lose my bottomless celery supply, but I was excited about the flowers.

Pollinating insects love celery blossoms. Actually, they adore the whole family of plants to which celery belongs, called Apiaceae or Umbelliferae (which I tend to call Umbrella Fae, which is wrong, but right in my head). This family includes carrots, celery, dill, coriander, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace, etc. If you can let any of this family bloom in your garden, do.

The parsley flowers grew almost as tall as me, and they were surrounded by clouds of tiny insects every day –shy, tiny little pollinators that I can’t name.

I love to let things go to flower and seed in the garden, because it is a way of giving back to the rest of nature. Flowers for the insects, seeds for birds. And by giving back, you help balance your garden. We’ve had significantly less issues with destructive insects since we learned to let our garden go a little wild.

Sadly, this celery never got to seed, because it collapsed under its own weight one day. Its thick, hollow stalks folded and the head of the plant fell to the patio.  I had hoped to save a little seed and try to grow a plant the next year from scratch. But now I’m thinking I’m going to throw a whole crown of celery in the worm bin this fall, and hope this happens all over again.

collapsed parsley plant

Radish Surprise

radish close

A volunteer radish–I think it is a daikon–sprouted up in a little clear pocket of our yard. We let it go, ignored it. It grew bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Usually a radish is harvested early, so we never see how big they can get.

This one got huge, then burst out into hundreds of tiny purple flowers. Hummingbirds, honey bees and all sorts of flying insects visit it all day, every day. It has become one of the queens of the garden.

The picture below is horrible. The radish plant really is quite pretty,  the equal of any ornamental flowering shrub–but as bad is the picture is, it gives you some scale. See the bales of our straw bale garden behind it?  I think it must be pulling water from there, which accounts for its size and longevity. It’s gone a little past its prime now– a couple of weeks ago the blooms were thicker.

By the way, radish blossoms are tasty food for people, too.

radish flower

All Hail Our Succulent Overlords

succulent

Nature made this. It’s growing in a pot on our front porch. I am in a state of wonder and amazement. It is so perfect in all its parts, so regal and confident, that I just want to kneel down before it and say “I am not worthy to be in your presence, 0 plant god. I am nothing but a flabby, destructive primate.”

I don’t know the name of this succulent– and I know someone is going to ask! Does anybody know the name of this plant? Below is a pic of the rosette from which this rare flower has sprung. It’s none too shabby, either, obviously. But I never expected it had such beautiful secrets hidden inside.

suc top copy

A Backyard Bioshelter

Jonathan Bates of Holyoke, Massachusetts has a nifty greenhouse he calls his “backyard bioshelter.” He uses it to grows veggies year round in a climate that often goes well below 0°F. An aquaponics setup and a worm bin are also integrated into the shelter. And he’s even trying to grow avocados!

You can keep up with what he’s doing on his blog at permaculturegreenhouse.com.

Thanks to the Natural Building Blog for the link.

Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land

book cover for "growing food in a hotter drier land"

We just got our hands on Gary Paul Nabhan’s newest book, Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land: Lessons from Desert Farmers on Adapting to Climate Uncertainty. It couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I heard about this book on the grapevine a good while back, and requested a review copy from the publisher because we’ve met Gary and like his work. Getting free books once in a while is one of the perks of blogging. This book, though, I would lay down cash for in a heartbeat.

At the time I made the request, I merely though it would be an interesting read. In the wake of the Age of Limits Conference, and my subsequent reading about climate change–and the depression that resulted from that–its fortuitous arrival this week has given me much to think about, as well as a much needed infusion of hope.

I leaned a terrible word at the conference: hopium (Hope + Opium). This is a doomer term for any practice or philosophy that would give us false hope, or perhaps any hope at all. It has a satirical counterpoint: despairoin (Despair + Heroin), which speaks to the seductive nature of despair.

Nabhan’s book is neither hopium or despairoin. It’s sublimely realistic. He’s looking with clear eyes at a future which is going to be hot and dry (except when it’s flooding, of course.).

This hot, dry future is not limited to already hot dry places, like Los Angeles. He points to recent droughts in places which usually receive generous rainfall. Right now it seems as if this tendency toward drought is occurring on a global scale and will worsen in coming years.

Unfortunately, conventional, large scale agriculture is not only adding to the problem, it will also not be able to deal with the changes in the making. It is ill-suited to chaotic weather. In sum, if we don’t start growing food in different ways, we’re not only looking at a dry future, we’re looking at a hungry future.

To solve this puzzle, Nabhan takes a look at at existing desert agriculture, from the Sonoran desert to China to Oman. From the ancient past right up into the present, humans have been cleverly managing their water, soil and plants to gather harvests from some of the most inhospitable places on the planet. We have much to learn from them.

Over and over he points out that we’re not meant to replicate the exact methods of these desert farmers, but learn from them and adapt them to our own particular situation and climate.

To help us do this, he breaks down the methodologies into conceptual chunks, like catching runoff, using efficient water delivery systems, easing heat stress in both plants and animals, tips on orcharding in uncertain climates, choosing stress tolerant and/or quick maturing plant varieties, etc.  All of this information is supported with helpful tables and plant lists.

While some of his information is only going to be useful to people with large-ish parcels of land, I found plenty of inspiration in here for my tiny yard.

Woven between this practical information is separate body of information which he calls parables. A parable is story he tells us about a current dry land farmer, or stories from the past which can be pulled from history or the archeological records. These parables provide a sort of emotional bolster to the otherwise “dry” information, giving us a glimpse of the lived experience and philosophies of people who have thrived in difficult climates.

Some of the key positive characteristics of a dry land farmer are adaptability, resilience and persistence. What worked for us in the past is not always going to work in the future. We must know our land intimately, make good guesses, and be creative about developing  strategies to distribute risk.

Gardening is hard enough, heaven knows. The bad news is that it is going to get harder. The good news is that you can work your way through the challenges. Their are tools, techniques, and plant varieties that can help you weather the changes. Better to start learning these skills now than to wait for the squeeze.

A Vision for the Future

The part of the book which really set me on fire, though, was a talk Nabhan had with a Sufi visionary, Aziz Bousfiha, who lives in the dry outskirts of Fez, Morocco. There, he’s built a dryland paradise, lush with heat adapted fruit trees, like pomegranates, mulberries and jujubes. He also grows olives, agave, citrus and poetic herbs like lavender and coriander.

Bousfiha has built an oasis in a difficult climate and envisions of chain of oases spread around the world: oases for both nature and humanity. These oases are not carefully preserved bits of paradise, but rather are reclaimed from degraded spaces:

For me, the idea is to go somewhere into the desert [to find a place share with others--one severely degraded over time by neglect, depletion of water, a perhaps climate change]. We’ll proclaim that yes, this place has been desertified, but now we’re going to make it into a living oasis, one where we will respect and nurture a diversity of life.

He goes on to speak about the importance of bio-diversity, and how this chain of oasis-like farms could promote this, and serve the larger community. Then he says,

We will generate solidarity between people on and off the farm, who will begin to walk the long road of ancient wisdom together. They will bring back the old grains of the region as symbols of the seeds of wisdom that we must plant. Over the centuries, these ancient sees have adapted to place. It is just not just a natural ecosystem, but a cultural ecosystem as well.

At the end of the conversation, he’s asked how he thinks his vision will fly in the face of climate change. He laughed gently and replied,

I can’t waste time worrying about whether or not this will work. There is a proverb in Arabic–and [probably] similar ones in other languages that may say it all: If it looks like the last day of the world is upon us and the end of life may be coming…and you realize this moment while you are planting trees, well, don’t stop planting.

If this is hopium, give me more.

Los Angeles is a sad and degraded space, and the Root Simple Estate is already an oasis of sorts, but Nabhan’s book has inspired us to max it out, to do as much as we can to capture and recycle water, to improve our soil, to start breeding out tough-as-nails annuals, to develop more effective “guilds” (in Permaculture speak). In regular talk that means we plan manage our landscaping wisely, so the plants support one another.

I’d encourage you to think of your own little patch of the world as an oasis too. How can you help make it more resilient to the shocks of strange weather?  How can you forge links with other oasis keepers?

Connect with Nature Project #2: Rediscover Your Feet

When I was a kid, I watched Kung Fu every day after school, and loved this iconic scene from the opening where Caine walks the rice paper without leaving a mark to graduate from Kung Fu college. Turns out Fox Walking is similar.

Last week we talked about Sitting. This week, we’re talking about Walking.

My personal rediscovery of my feet came from three sources:

The first was yoga. During an intense engagement with yoga a few years back I learned to spread my fashion-cramped toes in order to ground myself during difficult asanas. My toes opened wide, taking on a permanent, natural splay. My foot size also increased by an inconvenient half size, making it newly difficult to find shoes which fit.

Next came barefoot walking. As has been oft mentioned in this blog, Erik is a barefoot runner. I don’t run, but I am a barefoot walker. Barefoot walking woke me to a world of forgotten sensations: the warm softness of asphalt, the fresh coolness of a sprinkler soaked sidewalk, the delicate slide of wet leaves beneath my toes. Feet are as sensitive as hands. It’s easy to forget this when shod.  This new stimulus was addictive. It enriched my walks. It connected me to an entirely new realm of sensory input.

The third stage was learning a technique called Fox walking through nature awareness classes I take through a great outfit here in SoCal called Earth Skills. Fox walking is a kind of mindful walking where you let your toes lead your foot and your foot leads your body. I’m going to teach it to you. Fox walking allows you to walk quietly and smoothly though natural settings. It’s primary purpose is stalking animals, because the gait you assume, ideally, does not startle them. Basically, they do not recognize it as human. It also allows you to walk while scanning the environment, instead of worrying about your steps.

Since I’m not a hunter, what Fox walking has done for me is waken my feet even more than barefoot walking. I now consider my feet antennae. In class, I’ve walked blindfolded through difficult terrain. I now can walk confidently in darkness. This opens a whole new world of night-time nature appreciation. When you are blinded by your own flashlight, your field of vision is confined to a small circle of light. The world outside that ghostly circle seems mysterious, even threatening. Walking without light allows you to see the stars, and the shapes of things. You walk slower, yes, so you see and understand more.

To anyone seeking closer contact with nature, I’d recommend considering your own two feet. They are the primary interface between you and the earth, but they are often neglected and abused, shoved into hoof-like boxes, forcing you to clomp around as if you are numb from the knee down. How can you know the earth if you can’t even feel it?

The simplest way to reconnect with your feet is to just take short walk with bare feet. Grass and sand are great , but don’t wait until you have somewhere “nice” to walk. Go for a sidewalk stroll around your neighborhood. Now that summer is here, it’s a good time for it.

Don’t go very far at first, or your arches will ache later, or your tender soles may be sore. A half-block may be enough to start!  Let your feet toughen up slowly, over the course of weeks. If you want to take a long walk, but can only barefoot it so far, take a pair of sandals with you. If you’re dubious about the whole proposition, just kick off your shoes one day while you’re out on a walk and see how it feels. I think you might be surprised how much you come to enjoy barefoot walking.

For more advanced studies, I recommend the Fox Walk.

How to Fox Walk

  1. It’s best to do this with light, flexible foot wear, such as slippers or moccasins or fancy minimalist shoes or heck, go barefoot, if you can.
  2. Take a relaxed stance. Keep your knees soft and springy, even slightly bent.
  3. Take your arms out of the picture. No swinging arms. Fox Walking is not striding, it’s creeping. Clasp your hands in front of you or hold them bent softly at your sides. Whatever is most comfortable. Just keep them still.
  4. Lift one foot, transferring all your weight to your grounded foot. Lead with the toe. Let the ball of the foot, touch earth first. Before committing to lowering your heel, pause to feel what your foot senses. Don’t look, feel. Is the ground firm? Is there a stick beneath you toes? A hole? Maybe you will shift your foot over and around it. Maybe you sense your foot can bridge it comfortably. Make your decision, and lower your heel softly. Caress the ground with your foot.
  5. Now shift your weight to the committed leg, lift your rearmost leg  (now light and unencumbered by your weight), and reach out with that foot. Make the same determination regarding the ground. Let all your awareness sink into your feet, and beyond. Let it stretch deep into the ground and all around. Trust the sensations you are picking up.
  6. This is how it goes: reaching with the foot, sensing, committing, rolling down in a silent, caressing footstep. Remember, caressing, not stomping! Weight shift. Repeat. It becomes smoother, faster, more automatic, with practice.
  7. All the while, your head is up. Don’t look at your feet! If you do, they can’t do their job right. Keep your head high, scan around with soft eyes, taking in the beauty of the world. Your feet, meanwhile, are engaged in their own conversation with the earth, and feeding that information back to you. This is a magical kind of walking.

Obviously, you have to be very careful when you do this. This is a mindfulness practice. The goal is not to get somewhere fast, the goal is to experience every step of the journey in a completely conscious way.

And as to danger, I’ve never hurt myself during this practice. I’ve never stumbled while blindfolded or in the dark. I trust my feet. I stub my toes when I’m unmindful and in a hurry. I trip and fall in shoes, when my connection with the ground is severed.

Once you are comfortable walking this way, you can use your walk as a moving meditation. Instead of Sitting, you can move through nature, practicing the same quiet mind.

You can also use this method to walk softly to your Sitting place, so you don’t alarm the critters on the way in.

Enjoy!

Self-watering terracotta seed-starters!

Plant a garden front

Root Simple reader and all around nice person Anne Fletcher has gone entrepreneurial with a really good idea: self-watering containers for seedlings. Most anyone who has ever tried to start a garden from seeds has had the experience of having seedlings die or go shocky due to a heat wave or a day or two of neglect. Starting seeds in a self-watering container makes a whole lot of sense. These containers can go up to a week between waterings. Even better, Anne’s seed starters are made out of terracotta instead of plastic. We’ve tried out her 6-pack model. It’s really cute, and it worked like a charm.

Now she’s doing a Kickstarter so she can move her business, Orta, out of the garage and produce a technically more complex 12-pack seed-starter.  So if you’re interested in getting first grabs at her new 12-pack model, or just willing to give a hand to someone trying to start a green, local business, take a look at her Kickstarter page, and let your friends know about it, too.

12-pack

Fruit Tree Update: Flavor Delight Aprium

flavor delight aprium

One of my big regrets is not planting a bunch of fruit trees when we first moved into our house in 1998.* Thankfully though, we got our act together eventually. In 2011, we put in a call local fruit tree expert Steve Hovfendahl for some suggestions. His advice was based on what would grow in our warm climate as well as fruit tasting results conducted by the Dave Wilson nursery.

It’s been over two years since we planted the trees Hovfendahl suggested and they are just beginning to bear fruit. We ordered one too many trees and had to stick the Flavor Delight Aprium in a less than idea location (too much shade). Despite the lack of sun the tree bore some fruit in late May and it sure was tasty–the perfect balance between sweet and tart.

The Flavor Delight Aprium is a cross between a plum and an apricot that is hardy to zones 6 to 10 and requires less than 300 hours below 45°F, making it ideal for warm climates. It’s one of many hybrid fruit trees developed painstakingly over many years by Zaiger Genetics. In terms of taste and appearance it’s more of an apricot than a plum.

If you live in the right climate I highly recommend this tree.

* Note from Kelly: In our defense, we didn’t plant trees because we didn’t think we had room. Back then we didn’t know  about “Backyard Orchard Culture” — which, in a nutshell, means keeping fruit trees small. This is also discussed on the Dave Wilson site. This is really important information for any homesteader.